Film Reviews

Best of the Breast

Russ Meyer didn't have it easy. Today, there are plastic mam jobs on almost every corner just bursting to be in exploitation movies. But when Meyer was casting Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, finding a 58-DD wasn't so easy. The intrepid filmmaker probably toured half the go-go bars in America in search of his cast.

He found them, though, just as he'd found well, then overly, then excessively endowed women for a series of breast-obsessed movies dating from 1959, when he made The Immoral Mr. Teas, a film credited by some with being the first skin flick (as opposed to blue movie or straight-out porn film). For much of his career, excepting a brief period in the late '60s when Hollywood invited him to shoot a follow-up to Valley of the Dolls called Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Meyer's was strictly drive-in fare. He had more longevity and more public recognition than his peers -- in part because a Russ Meyer skin flick was immediately identifiable as such -- but he was hardly taken seriously, unless it was by a few feminist critics who saw in him the quintessential example of male hormones gone wrong.

But the recent revival of Faster Pussycat!, made three decades ago and looking it, has resulted in some serious, chin stroking reassessments of Meyer's place in movie history. It has led to a lot of talk about Russ Meyer movies being positive for women -- lesbian and feminist critic B. Ruby Rich has been quoted ad nauseam about how when she first saw Faster Pussycat! she rejected it as sexist, but now considers it a fascinating female fantasy -- and a lot of talk about how the women in Meyer's films are all empowered. That is all fine and good, and it is all finally malarkey. None of that was Meyer's intent. The point of Faster Pussycat! is not that the women in it are sexually demanding. The point of the movie is not that these women wreak havoc. The point of this movie is that these woman wear tight clothes and have big tits. And the point of any understanding of Russ Meyer is that he is a man who has shown a singular, special, weird talent for making action movies about women who wear tight clothes and have big tits.

The reason that the Russ Meyer revival has centered on Faster Pussycat! instead of, say, Vixen or Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens or any of the other 20 movies he's attached his name to as director may be that Faster Pussycat! is relatively pure in its way; in this film, Meyer doesn't try to dress up his obsessions with much of a coherent plot, or much of anything else. It's all personality, presence and action. Tura Satana and Haji, the film's dark-haired stars, were both exotic dancers before Meyer discovered them, and they, and the blond Lori Williams, are go-go dancing furiously during the bizarre exposition that opens Faster Pussycat!. While they leer and gyrate, an urgent voice-over warns the modern man of 1965 against "this rapacious new breed of female."

A pack of this new breed are led by Varla (Satana). This she-devil on wheels wears a low-cut black sweater and too-tight black jeans (neatly anticipating the trend by 20 years) and has drawn-on eyebrows penciled fiercely at least an inch above her natural brows. In contrast to her huge eyes and huge breasts, she has tiny sharp teeth and little hands in glossy black gloves. Her looks, however, are not nearly as bizarre as her dialogue. Much of the dialogue seems to have been written as an afterthought, and the attempts at snappy patter and sarcasm result in perhaps the greatest non sequitur theater the world has ever known.

Varla and her minions, Rosie (Haji) and Billie (Williams), spend their off time speeding around a dirt track in the desert. During a break, Billie revs up the radio and starts dancing in the sand. For some unfathomable reason, this offends Varla. There's no telling why the sight of the perky blond doing the pony and the stroll makes her see red; she seems generally angry at Billie. But whether this is from frustrated lesbian lust (Varla and Haji have a subtle thing going on) or simply a sign of her erratic temper isn't made clear. Billie, for similarly unknown reasons, responds defensively to Varla's anger. When Varla says, "Don't you get enough of that at the club?" Billie's reply is, "My motor's always running." The lines seem to make sense, but the tone of the exchange is more than a bubble off plumb. The elaborate weirdness continues. Fresh meat appears.

Members of a car club toddle out in their roadster. The driver, Tommy, is a dweeb speed racer. Poor Tommy -- he wears dark socks, light deck shoes and madras shorts: how could he not be doomed? His girlfriend, the shrill and buxom young Linda (Susan Bernard), is more interesting to Varla. With mighty karate chops from her delicately gloved hand, Varla puts Tommy in the dirt and then, in a savage move, snaps his spine.

Seeing this, the shrill and buxom young Linda becomes even more shrill and heaves her buxom, though not so violently as to dislodge the bow on her head. Varla, in her one sane move, slaps the shrieking teen unconscious. Then Varla's group and their bikini-clad kidnap victim buzz off to have adventures, eventually winding up on a wacky ranch in search of a good time from the demented and crippled rancher's musclebound, meathead son and the loot rumored to be hidden on their property.

There they continue to have adventures that include random violence, bathing scenes, cat fights and seductions, scenes that would be gratuitous if stuck into a film with any sort of plot. But since this is a movie about random violence, women's bodies, cat fights and seductions, it's the thin plot line and uneven moral-of-the-story ending that seem gratuitous.

Do not, though, confuse sleazy subject matter with sleazy filmmaking. Faster Pussycat! is well-shot in nicely paced crisp black and white and looks, production-valuewise, more expensive than it actually was. This is just another curious element. Another little Meyer mystery.

Meyer also has an odd twist on the train as a film element. Sex in so many movies is, of course, signified by a speeding locomotive roaring down the tracks into an oh-so-Freudian tunnel. In Faster Pussycat!, trains destroy men. The crippled rancher was disabled in a railroad accident. (In fact, he was foolish enough to try and help a female, to save a girl on the train tracks, and he now pays the price, he says, every day of his life.) Billie is unable to seduce the musclebound, meathead son because, in the clinch, while they are out rolling around in the tumbleweeds, he hears a train whistle and wigs out. Did Meyer choose to have trains cause impotence? Or was Meyer just casting around for some way to cripple the codger and chose a train at random? It's impossible to judge, and what Meyer might say after 30 years is suspect. But it's another of the things that lend his work a certain weird fascination.

Other Faster Pussycat! elements that may or may not be deliberately symbolic include eyeliner. It is the case that the dark girls, the black-hearted brunettes Varla and Rosie, have drawn on long, almond-shaped eyes, while the party-girl blond, Billie, has positioned her eye pencil with short, up-turned strokes. This could have been a personal makeup choice by the actresses. Or it could have been Meyer's way of defining character. Mysteries like these give one something to think about during the long, dull stretches.

Not that there are a lot of them. Meyer's talent is so special, and so odd, that no less a filmmaker than John Waters has said that Faster Pussycat! is "beyond a doubt the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future." Waters may have been kidding; with Waters, it's hard to know. But then, with Meyer it's hard to know as well.

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Directed by Russ Meyer. With Tura Satana, Haji and Lori Williams.

Not rated.
83 minutes.

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Edith Sorenson